May 4, 2022
“I just held my first baby goat a week ago,” Tiffany Knight tells us. “I’m a city girl through and through.”
Knight is the first to admit that, as a FoodCorps educator who teaches gardening lessons to kids in Arkansas, she’s learning about how to grow food right alongside her students. But when it comes to educating children about nutrition, sharing a love and appreciation of food, and inspiring healthy habits in an inclusive and non-judgmental way, she’s a natural.
A New York City native who was raised in Florida, Knight has a culinary school background, a passion for social justice and food equality, and years of experience working in food service. She’s also currently pursuing a master’s degree in public health. “I love serving my community and being an advocate for my community,” she shares.
Knight was working with a food bank in Orlando and figuring out how to make a career move into public health when a friend told her about FoodCorps, a nonprofit organization that works to connect kids to healthy food in schools through educational programming (and one of Thrive Market’s closest allies in our effort to end food inequality).
“I loved [FoodCorps’] mission to improve access to healthy food,” Knight recalls. “That’s a big thing for me. Regardless of race or how much money you have or where you are in the world, I believe that healthy food should be afforded to everyone, and I loved that FoodCorps felt the same way.”
Many children in Arkansas, where Knight teaches, face food insecurity (more than 20% in 2019, according to Feeding America). For them, and millions of children nationwide, the meals provided by their schools are an essential resource. School meal waivers made it possible for all kids to access free school meals during the COVID-19 pandemic, but those waivers are set to expire on June 30 of this year.
“Without an extension from Congress, schools will lose the flexibilities they’ve had over the past two years to ensure that every student has access to nourishing breakfast and lunch free of charge, regardless of their family income or background,” explains Laura Hatch, Senior Director of Policy Partnerships at FoodCorps. “Continuing free school meals for all is critical to making sure every student has the opportunity to thrive at school and beyond.”
FoodCorps is hard at work advocating for policies to make nutrition and food education a priority in the country’s schools, including the bipartisan “Support Kids Not Red Tape Act,” introduced by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). The act would extend school meal waivers through September 2023, ensuring all children can get the food they need to be ready to learn. (You can join FoodCorps in urging Congress to prioritize this act by sending a letter to your senators.)
What Knight may lack in gardening experience she more than makes up for with an authentic sense of purpose and dedication to improving healthy food access for kids and helping open their minds to new flavors and experiences. She sees herself as a role model for children, and she’s enthusiastic about all the ways she can enrich the lives of her students — whether that’s by teaching them healthy recipes they can cook with their families, helping them develop positive relationships with food, or encouraging them to connect with their peers.
“Food traditions can happen in school,” Knight reflects. “Some [students] may not be able to have a meal with their family, but they can have a meal with their school family. School lunch can be a time of gathering.”
We talked to Knight about how her own experiences inform her inclusive and non-judgmental approach to teaching kids about nutrition and healthy eating.
Thrive Market: What inspired you to become an educator?
Tiffany Knight: I’ve always enjoyed working with kids. In high school, one of my first jobs was as an after-school [and] summer school youth counselor.
What inspires me most is being someone that the kids can learn from, particularly in the community that I’m in right now. I am the only Black teacher at both of the schools that I’m working at. I take pride in that: being someone that looks different, culturally, physically, but being someone that they can connect to, regardless of obvious differences.
What inspires me most every day is just the love that they have for me, and the love that I have for them. Even in this short amount of time, being someone that they can walk away and be like, I learned this from Miss Tiffany.
TM: What’s your mission when you’re in the classroom or working in the garden with students?
TK: When I’m eating lunch with [the students], we talk about what’s on their plate. They love to tell me, oh, I got vegetables today. They ask me questions like, are French fries a vegetable? Is peanut butter and jelly healthy for you? Is popcorn healthy for you?
I try my hardest to refrain from telling them that ‘this is healthy’ and ‘this is not healthy.’ Obviously, we know French fries are delicious, but they may not be the healthiest choice. I always connect back to that: what are French fries made of? Potatoes. Are potatoes a vegetable? Yes. So, does that mean potatoes are healthy for you? Yes. I never want to discourage them from eating any of the foods that are on their plate. I love to talk about balance with the kids. I love chips, and I love chocolate chip cookies. I’m not going to sit here and say that I don’t love those things.
However, I love to tell the kids, Hey, the cookies are okay, but what are some other choices we can make? What are some fruits and vegetables that you like to eat? Strawberries, grapes. How about we have maybe a cookie. And then maybe later, we have the strawberries and grapes, or maybe later we have the broccoli, we have a salad. That way, we can create a balance. I try my hardest not to shame anybody’s food or tell them, no, they can’t eat this, and to give them the tools to make healthier decisions.
TM: What does a typical day in the classroom look like?
TK: I try to get the kids out in the garden as much as I can. We spend time weeding, planting. Right now, I have tomatoes. I have cucumbers, squash, watermelon, cantaloupe, some flowers, like daffodils and tulips growing. We’ll weed. We’ll talk about the different plant parts. We’ll do some garden clean-up.
I am big on what to do next with the food. I do a lot of tastings and cooking demos with the kids. I teach them knife skills, teaching them how to cook.
I think it’s important for the kids to understand…you can grow all these things, but I want them to learn enjoyable ways of eating it. So if we harvest something or if I go to the grocery store and get something, I love showing them different ways to eat it. We can do whatever we want with the food, but the most important part is eating it, and then really just connecting with the kids.
TM: How do you ensure your lessons are culturally sensitive and relevant to the students you’re serving?
TK: I did a few lessons with the kids about where food comes from, what parts of the world eat certain foods. I’ve let the kids tell me about certain food traditions that they have, and even family recipes that they have, and talk about its significance to them. Some of the kids will say, my grandma’s from Laos, or my mom’s from Vietnam, or my grandma’s from Tulsa. I’ve told them about my culture. My dad is from Grenada, so the things that we eat in that country. Talking about those differences is important.
I say, “don’t yuck my yums.” When we’re trying something new, don’t say “gross.” [If] somebody brings a food from home, and it may have a different smell than you’re familiar with, or it may have a different look than you’re familiar with…we can ask questions about the food, but it’s important for us to not say, that smells gross or that’s yucky, because somebody’s family made this. I think that’s important for them to understand — we eat different things.
TM: “Healthy” means something different to everyone. How do you teach kids about nutrition in an inclusive, nonjudgmental way?
TK: We talk about fresh foods and fresh ingredients from the garden, but I always say, “I understand that some of you may have had these vegetables before, but in different ways. So maybe frozen or maybe canned. You’re still getting the same vegetables.” I try not to shame, and to let them know that it’s okay.
When I worked with Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida I was trying to incorporate a cultural competency training [and] really introducing cultural foods to the food bank system. A lot of the time, our food banking systems are centered on white and Eurocentric health standards. That’s not the case for everybody, or every culture. A lot of diets out there will tell you rice is bad; don’t eat rice or eat cauliflower rice. But in all reality, rice is a staple to a lot of communities, and you can be healthy while eating your cultural foods.
TM: Are there any particular moments from your experience that stand out?
TK: Sometimes I’ll walk in with my ingredients for the day, and [the students] will see the ingredients and be like, ‘Oh, Miss Tiffany, I don’t like this. I don’t like that.’ I did a smoothie with spinach and they’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t like that.’ I always say, ‘Are you guys friends with Miss Tiffany?’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re friends.’ I say, ‘You guys trust Miss Tiffany?’ ‘Yeah, we trust you.’ ‘So then, take a taste of it.’ And then sometimes they’ll be like, ‘Wow, this is actually really good.’
I’ll have parents come to me and say, ‘Did you do a lesson with spinach?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah. Why?’ ‘Oh, because my kid asked me to buy spinach today.’ I love that. That makes me happy. That’s the purpose, to be at home and doing it with your family. That’s what’s memorable to me, is them taking it home and introducing it to their siblings and their parents or whoever takes care of them.
Want to support Thrive Market’s efforts to end food inequality? Your donations to Thrive Gives at checkout support FoodCorps and their work connecting kids with healthy food in schools. Stay up to date on FoodCorps’ policy action by signing up for alerts here.
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